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NAB's Smith: Supreme Court Decision Good For Speech, Bottom Line

VIDEO: Click here to watch B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton's interview with Gordon Smith on C-SPAN

NAB President Gordon Smith called the Supreme Court's decision to allow corporations and unions to directly fund more on-air political spots "a good one for freedom of speech."

That came in an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series, in which he also weighed in on spectrum--broadcasters want to keep it and aren't sure they will be able to share it--indecency and more.

Smith voted against campaign finance reform as a senator, he pointed out. But he also said he thought it could be good for the broadcasters coffers as well as the First Amendment.

"Ultimately you can't get on TV or radio without paying for it," he said. "Broadcasters have lots of costs in production of content. The American people rely on their TVs and radios, and ulimately I expect it will mean there is more political advertising."

Smith said the best part of the decision was that there remains "full disclosure," so that the American people can figure out "who is for whom, and why."

But Gordon is for broadcasters in particular. "I think it does help [broadcasters]. At a time when advertising is down, perhaps political advertising will go up."

Gordon was ready for the "elephant in the room" question about the FCC's interest in broadcasters' spectrum.

"Digital TV should not be sacrificed on the altar of the digital divide," he said.

A top FCC staffer dealing with spectrum reclamation has told B&C that the commission is not out to force broadcasters off their spectrum and wants to preserve free TV. Is there a middle ground?

He said he was "still open to discussing this," but that broadcasters were using their spectrum efficiently already. "We're not saying no, blanketly," he said. "We're just saying, 'Let us see the proposal and we'll try to calculate it.'"

He also said a problem is that spectrum is not a "straight line" issue but a patchwork quilt of uses from community to community. He said he was not sure broadcasters would be be able to share their spectrum. "When you say, 'Take it back or turn it in,' I don't know fully how that translates or whether or not we could share the space because the technology that broadcasters use is not compatible with the digital technology that one-to-one types of devices use."

He said that after all the billions spent on the digital transition, he thinks it would be "politically impossible" to sell a spectrum reclamation proposal
that takes that spectrum back.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in announcing an FCC initiative looking at the future of media and journalism, said the financial meltdown and technological change have "called into question whether these media outlets will continue to play their historic role in providing local communities with essential news and information."

Smith agreed, laying that fate at the feet of government regulation that "with the very best of intentions" was counterproductive. He cited ownership caps and vertical ownership prohibitions as examples.

He suggested "some relaxation" of ownership rules or "allowing some vertical integration in some communities." While he said he was not necessarily advocating that, he called it a better solution than having government subsizide newspapers when they "are supposed to be the watchdogs of government."

When pressed, he did say he was saying loosening duopoly rules or getting rid of the ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership "makes a lot of sense."

Smith also talked about indecency enforcement--broadcasters should not be regulated to the point of being "unduly muzzled"--but said broadcasters understand their responsibility to be responsive to their communities.

He said that, speaking as a father, he wished there were not indecencies on the public airwaves. But he also conceded that the indecency enforcement regime puts broadcasters at a competitive disadvantage. "Broadcasters want to produce what our viewers want to watch, and they have all kids of options today, from indecent to obscene, and yet we have the restraint unique to broadcasting that we have a public responsiblity."

Smith said that, to make it fair, "everything ought to be regulated by the FCC, not just broadcasting." Asked whether he could be quoted on that, he backed off a bit, saying his point was that "the playing field isn't level on the issue of indecency."